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Nia Vardalos, Meg Ryan, Geena Davis Talk Sexism in Hollywood

Working together on “Tootsie,” Dustin Hoffman gave Geena Davis wise career advice that she has followed ever since.

“One of the things he told me was ‘Work on getting your own material. Read books. Read articles, get the rights,’” says Davis. “So from the very beginning that was in my mind. In fact, I tried to get the rights to ‘The Accidental Tourist’ when I read it and somebody bought the rights a long time ago and I was so bummed because I thought somebody is going to get to play that part.”

Davis, of course, ultimately did get to play that role in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1988 drama, ‘The Accidental Tourist,’ winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress.

But snagging an Oscar didn’t preclude Davis from encountering sexism in Hollywood, a topic up for discussion at Friday’s “In Control of Her Own Destiny” panel held during the second annual Bentonville Film Festival, which Davis co-founded and that aims to increase diversity and gender parity in media.

Meg Ryan, Nia Vardalos and Kimberly Williams-Paisley joined Davis for the spirited event, which took place at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

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“One day (on the set of ‘Thelma & Louise’) as we’re walking to lunch, Ridley (Scott) says, ‘Hey, Geena, I’m thinking later in the scene today, what if you were to just sit up in the back of the chair in your car and just take your shirt off?’” Davis told the crowd. “And I run over and find Susan (Sarandon) and I tell her there’s a scene this afternoon and Ridley wants me to take my top off and she says, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake.’ She throws her silverware down and goes over to Ridley and says, ‘Ridley, Geena’s not taking her top off.’ It was like, oh, wait a minute. Women are actually allowed to say what they think and express what they want.”

Vardalos, whose new comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” screened at Bentonville, encountered similar experiences while starting out in Hollywood.

“I had worked for ten years in theater, I had worked at Second City in Chicago. Then I got to Hollywood and I was like, naively, ‘Where’s my pilot?’” she said. “And I went to my agent, who also represented by husband, who was going out for nine to ten auditions a week, and I said to her, ‘Why am I not getting auditions?’ And she said, ‘Because you’re not pretty enough to be a leading lady and you’re not fat enough to be a character actress.’ I held off for a bit to see if she was going to say, ‘Just kidding.’ But no, she was not kidding, not one bit. And I had real sadness for this woman because I realized she was hating on her own gender and that years of Hollywood had turned her so jaded.”

In response, Vardalos borrowed a friend’s computer and penned the semi-autobiographical “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which went on to earn over $368 million dollars at the U.S. box office.

“I called myself with a job offer,” said Vardalos of her decision to take matters into her own hands. “I jumped on stage and started to do that material as a one woman show. The agents never came. But Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks and Tom Hank’s partner Gary Goetzman came. And they said, this should be a movie.”

While new inroads have been made for women and minorities in TV and film, all four panelists agreed that gender inequality continues to pervade the entertainment business.

“I’ve had lots of moments in development of my scripts where a director doesn’t quite understand that I’m trying to be a voice for all women,” said Vardalos. “Quite often they will suggest a scene where my character is going lingerie shopping and wearing a bra. And I’ll say, ‘Listen, when a woman is not feeling sexy the last thing we’re going to do is subject ourselves to that fluorescent lighting.’ I don’t temper how I feel. I’m Greek. I’ve got emotions. I just say it: ‘No.’”

“I remember when I got ‘Father of the Bride and I first hired ‘people’ (to help me) and I was trying to find out who I was — I was 19,” said Williams-Paisley. “One of the people I hired suggested, maybe your character is obsessed with trashy lingerie. I was like, ‘Really? That’s my thing?’ And she was a woman. I didn’t do that.”

Per Ryan, there’s also this notion in Hollywood that actresses simply aren’t as smart as their male counterparts — that they just can’t take care of themselves.

“I’m come across more infantilization than sexism,” says Ryan, whose directorial effort “Ithaca,” also screened at Bentonville. “It’s more likely for an actress to be considered dumb. It’s much more convenient. I did a movie once that a lot of people didn’t like, and I went to England to do press for it, and the interviewer hated it so much, he kept saying that I shouldn’t have played such a sexualized character. Like a dad who was incredibly disappointed that his daughter had had sex. When I directed ‘Ithaca’ I got really aware of that idea that actresses just aren’t supposed to be smart.”

But producing your own projects is one of the best ways to maintain creative control, said Vardalos.

“During the focus group process for ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’ the teenage girl character wasn’t testing well and the studio said, ‘can you make her more likeable?’” she said. “And we said absolutely not. I will not make her more likable. This is an actual depiction of a female girl and look how well she’s been received. So they can suck it.”


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